I'm a gifted adult survivor of child abuse by my adopted parents, who left me with chronic depression, PTSD, and a touch of autism for good measure. Here I examine the fragments of my past. It's enlightening but not pleasant. You've been warned.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

PTSD Primer

You know, messing with layouts is such a great way to waste time....

In talking about my experience as an abused adoptee I'm going to talk a lot about PTSD's influence on my life.  Not a many people understand PTSD, so this is a
primer on how it works.  At least how it works in my life.  It may not work the same in other people's lives.

PTSD starts when a much weaker person is confronted by a life-threatening monster, or the equivalent of a life-threatening monster.  That person fears for their
life, and with reason.  What happens next?

There are some people who, for whatever reason, just don't get scared in the first place.

There's the people who get scared and fight their way through their fear.  For Doctor Who fans, the quintessential example of this is Sarah Jane Smith.  Over the years (hell, decades) Liz Sladen taught a master class on how to portray a woman who was scared shitless but never witless.

Then there's the scream queens.  Danger appears, they get scared and scream for help, I guess trying to call on the first two groups.  I confess that when I was a little girl I found scream queens completely bewildering.  Why on Earth did they think anyone was going to come rescue them?

Why did they think anyone cared?

Then there's us, the people with PTSD.  The monster threatens our lives, we get scared.  But we don't scream or fight our way through our fear.  Instead we shove our fear in a box (think the Ghostbusters' containment unit or Pandora's box), lock it, stamp "Do Not Open" across it, and deal with the monster.  For Doctor Who fans, I suspect the Seventh Doctor's Companion Ace fit into this camp, although I haven't seen enough of her episodes to say for sure.

What's the difference between the second group and the fourth group, you ask.  Don't both groups deal with their fears and get past them?  Not exactly.  The second group faces their fears.  People with PTSD don't face their fears, they just shove them out of the way.

How's that work?  I can't speak for everyone with PTSD, but in my life PTSD is a very mechanical process.  It works like an overflow tank separating me from dangerous emotions.

Overflow tanks are useful devices.  There's a little one in your hot water heater, another in your car, and they often build huge ones in flood-prone areas.  When the water (or other fluid) in a hydraulic system gets past a certain point deemed "too high" and threatens to flood, the overflow tank opens and shunts excess water safely out of the way.  Then when the water outside goes down to a "safe" level, the overflow tank opens again and the excess water flows back into the general system.

With PTSD it works the same way only instead of water" it's "adrenaline" and "fear".  A dangerous situation arises, and adrenaline and fear rise in the body.  Once the adrenaline level gets past the "danger" point, the brain automatically shunts the fear you're feeling into the overflow tank.  There it stays until the adrenaline level lowers to the "safe" point, at which time the overflow tank opens and spills the fear back into your general system.

It all happens automatically and subconsciously, without you ever having to think about it or even know what's going on.  And, here's the kicker, it never stops.


Even decades after you've stopped needing it, it's still there chugging along.

Here's a real-life example:  some calamity occurred one evening before supper.  I dealt with it, cleaned up the mess, cooked supper, got everyone to the table,
put down the last dish, sat down -- and burst into tears long after the actual calamity took place, because it was only when I had everyone sitting down to eat that my subconscious deemed it "safe" enough.

And this happens all the time.

But I hope you spotted the flaw in this stopgap system.  When the adreneline level goes down, the fear comes out.  That means you can game the system.  If you never let your adrenaline level go down, you never have to feel fear!  That's great!

(For Doctor Who fans, I suspect that's the reason for Ace's legendary belligerence.)

Except -- what happens to an overflow tank that never gets to drain?  It starts leaking.

And what happens to a person with PTSD who keeps all their fears locked up in their tank?  It starts leaking.

But what's locked up inside your head isn't water.  It's fear.  Caging fear only makes it grow stronger.

And the longer it's caged, the stronger it grows.  So while it's vitally important for people with PTSD to chill out and relax their adrenaline level, it's also the absolutely no-lie scariest thing in the world for them to do.  It's easy to fight monsters at that point, because the monsters outside are always less scary than the Monster Army beating on the doors inside your head.

Anyway, in my case at least PTSD works in a way that is analogous to a simple mechanical process.  I'm glad I understand that -- now.  But I only figured that out
six years ago.  Before that I spent my entire life either completely numb or battered by devastating random bouts of negative moods, and I didn't have a clue what was going on.

For example, the year after I married my wonderful husband I was without question the happiest and safest I had ever been in my life up to that point.  Yet I
spent my newlywed year racked by nightmares and sudden, intense, random bouts of inconsolable weeping and sensory overload when we were alone in our home.
We know now it was trauma from my childhood seeping out, but at the time we had no idea what was going on.  It went away after about a year, much to our relief, but in an earlier age I could easily have been deemed possessed.

PTSD has a way of robbing you of joy.

While PTSD was first diagnosed in soldiers, it also appears in rape survivors and child abuse survivors. But most of the studies and metaphors associated with PTSD are still martial.  But now you know enough to understand what I mean when I talk about PTSD in later posts.

Just one more thing.  I developed PTSD at such a young age that I can't remember ever not having PTSD.  I can't remember ever feeling spontaneous and synchronous emotions.  So it's not a case of being able to what I felt like before I had PTSD and tryingto get that feeling back.  It's not there.

Anyway, that's enough background on that topic fornow.  See you later.

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